Painting Smaller but Still Living Large
Virginia Phillips’ paintings have grown smaller since her MS diagnosis a decade ago, but her picture of the world is big as ever.
“My attitude is good. I’m not depressed, and I have learned to handle the rest of the many aggravating MS symptoms,” the 77-year-old painter and interior designer said.
Phillips loved drawing as a child, but everybody’s career advice during the Depression was to “have something to fall back on.”
“You could be a secretary, a nurse or a schoolteacher and that was about it in those days. Women didn’t have a lot of options as they do now. So I picked the best of those three options, schoolteacher, but I hated it because I soon found I’m a doer, not a get-them-to-doer,” she said.
In 1953 Phillips found her true calling: interior design. She joined Chicago’s Marc T. Nielsen Interiors, moved with the company to Valparaiso, Ind., and later bought the design business and an associated antique shop, both located in a big, half-timbered barn. She recently sold the company but still works there as an employee.
The business was founded in 1924 and owes its longevity to resisting trends. “We like to create a space, an interior, an environment that people will enjoy being in for many, many years,” Phillips said.
To Phillips, designing is like creating a 3-D painting. In fact, she once designed a room around one of her own works: “Someone had wanted one of my paintings, and we just happened to be doing a room at the same time, so we decided that since it was there, I designed the concept of the colors of the room to fit that painting.”
Being in the design business gave Phillips opportunities to explore the world with her husband Hal, a retired English literature professor for 25 years. Every spring break they’d travel overseas looking for antiques to sell in the antique shop.
Phillips paints in oil, and she likes to paint big, though she’s now limited to 30-by-40 inches. “My top half is pretty good in terms of strength and flexibility,” she said.
“But if I wanted to stand, say, and do some grandiose movements to some classical music, that’s out, because I don’t stand very well and dance around. Although I do paint to music and have for a long time, my mobility is lessened and that has affected my paintings. But I still try to get as much life into them as possible, even though I’m sitting. In fact, I called one of my recent paintings Exuberant.”
Phillips favors landscapes, and in one recent series, gave a variety of treatments to the nearby lakeshore with compositions titled Sky, Lake and Dunes: Fiery Sunset; Sky, Lake and Dunes: Deep Blue Sea; Sky, Lake and Dunes: Blue Ripple, and so on.
Past series have included sunflowers; still lifes with patterns inspired by kilim rugs, like Matisse used to do; and landscapes from photos that friends brought her after immobility symptoms led her to give up plein air painting. She titled these New Wave.
Only once did Phillips let MS influence the subject of her painting: “I did paint one painting when I first was diagnosed that was really dark. One of my friends said, ‘Boy, you were in a bad mood when you painted that one,’ so I put that aside.
“A few years later I picked it up and did a painting over it with a lot of bright colors. I let some of the dark colors show through so it was actually brighter because of the dark accent bits.”
After going from walking to using a scooter in 10 years, Phillips admits to some frustration at the pace of MS research.
“So would you people please get busy? We need a pill, something that puts us back on our feet,” she said. “The next step is being in a bed, and I don’t like that idea.”
See more of Virginia Phillips' art on display at the virginiaphillips.com or reach her at 219-462-2565.